It is a rare thing for me to think of video games as anything other than entertainment. Even if the writing is good and the plot well-paced, something about it still feels so much like a product that I can’t shake the feeling of an industry lurking around the corner, coloring everything I play in a deep, green hue. It is inevitable yet deeply saddening, that games by their very nature will have it harder when it comes to being considered art. Because I believe with all my heart that the medium has what it takes. But for them to transcend to that abstract word they need to shed away some of the conventions of the past. Do away with traditional gameplay systems, get rid of the story->action->story->action way of structuring themselves.
This is why I want to talk about Disco Elysium. It is a game, it has systems, yet it is also something else. Something… literary. Groundbreaking. In my 28 years of being deeply engrossed in the gaming medium there has only been two games that made me stop and say: “This is something more.” When I played Planescape Torment and when I played Disco Elysium. And for so many years I got more and more certain that the first time would be the only time it happened, that Black Isle’s clunky CRPG was a glitch in the matrix that would never happen again.
I was wrong. Disco Elysium happened.
Now, before I continue I feel I need to clarify what it actually is I’m going to talk about here. This: writing and narrative as an art form. I’m not qualified to talk about visual design from an art perspective, and while I fully realise that there are games with such a unique aesthetic that I would never question someone who told me they too was on another level, it is not my place nor where my interests lie. This will be about writing and my love for words. I’ll talk mostly about Disco Elysium, but I’ll weave in some parallels to Planescape Torment, just to prove how the two games are connected.
FULL SPOILERS FOR PLANESCAPE TORMENT AND DISCO ELYSIUM FOLLOW
What I mean when I say “literary”
When I think of literature I think not just of words that form sentences, but words that make me feel something, that comment on the society we live in in a meaningful manner. It doesn’t need to be fine art, a term I could never really get around my head, but it needs to be something more than just a suspenseful story. It needs nuance. Room for interpretation. And while the two games mentioned above are vastly different in tone and execution, they both have this in common. They make me think. Let me make up my own mind. I think this is where the strength of “text-based” games lie: in that there is so much more you can convey in words than with visuals. It is why movies based on books often have to cut large chunks of the story, and why we’re never able to get as close to the main character as we would want to. Granted, visuals can also convey things words can’t. A look, a small twinkle in the eye, but all in all, a strength of the written medium is the freedom it gives a storyteller.
I’m going to contradict myself here, because to me the term literary always had a bad ring to it. When talking about books there is an age old debate about literary fiction versus genre fiction, with the former mostly being used to look down on the latter. For pretentious academics fantasy, science fiction, crime, and basically every other genre that isn’t firmly rooted in reality can never be literary. I disagree with this, as I think anyone who has ever read a novel by Philip K. Dick will.
What I mean when I call something literary is that it hits deeper than just being an exciting ride. It has themes that seep into the folds in the story, is open to interpretation and teaches me something about myself or the world around me. It is the difference between Star Wars and A Scanner Darkly, between Oliver Twist and The Hunger Games. Something literary happens when a work of art transcends entertainment and becomes something more.
Disco Elysium is brilliant. I could spend dozens of pages just talking about it, but I’m going to start off with the way it handles the skill system. It would have been so easy for the developer to just throw in the usual – wisdom, strength, perception – and be done with it. But they chose a different path. You put points into skills such as logic, empathy, volition, conceptualization, and my favourite: shivers. Shivers makes you perceive things that should be unperceivable, talk to the world around you. It is the tingle down your spine when entering a place of great history. It is the feeling that a place is bigger than you, holds more than you can fathom. It can take the form a voice speaking to you, or of the way a seagull flies high above, watching the city, wings perched like an angel. But it’s never about you per se. It is about something bigger. And this is something that never left me while playing through the game: that the protagonist Harry wasn’t the one who would save the world, he was just another broken down cog in a world slumbly crumbling in on itself. And there is nothing you can do about it. The wheels are set in motion and you’re left trying to do whatever small thing you can to make it a marginally better place.
Robert Kurvitz and his team wrote over a million words for Disco Elysium. Marcel Proust’s “A’la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (A Remembrance of Things Past) clocks in at 1 290 000 words. About the same. It is by all accounts an epic tale that Kurvitz has produced. Most of it is character building and world building, the main plot is there but is by no means central. The game is made up of subplot after subplot that somehow weave together to form a coherent whole. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that nothing feels redundant. Not a single time did I stop and think: this could have been cut. Because it couldn’t. It feels perfectly edited.
The reason for this is how the game handles the skill system. The skills speak to you. Dialogue trees are full of hidden skill checks that, if passed, give you additional information about the world, the characters, or your protagonist. Some of it is kind of dreamy and sets the tone more than anything else, some is directly tied to the quest at hand and helps you navigate the conversation to get the best outcome. There’s no way this could have been made with a cinematic approach. It needs the heavy text-based formula to work.
This is where I feel like Disco Elysium is ground-breaking. It uses writing in a very traditional way to make something that feels entirely new and fresh.
No one in Disco Elysium is truly evil. All around you are flawed characters trying to make the best of the hand they were given. Cuno, the child you meet at the murder scene, seems like just another annoying brat, but pass an empathy check and you realise it is all an act. He’s acting the way he does for the sake of the girl behind the fence, whom he rescued from a life in the gutter. It’s a hard life for him, and he makes it work by using drugs and acting out so as to not have to show how he really feels, deep inside.
Titus, the leader of the vigilante squad that as far as you know are responsible for the murder you’re investigating, turns out to be a man who just wanted to protect a girl he liked. He can grow to trust you, but it will take effort.
Perhaps the best character in the entire game is your partner, Kim Kitsuragi. Like most people in real life he is a mystery to be uncovered, an iceberg slowly rising from the ocean as you get closer to him. This is done perfectly, both from the dialogue itself but also from the different skill checks that, if leveled high enough, give you additional information about him. Where he at first is wary of the drunken mess that you are, if you do a good job he will gradually warm up to you, culminating in the end scene of the game where the Insulindian Phasmid, a mythological creature the game has done the best it can to make you think of only as a myth, emerges from the reeds and you bury your face in your hands and say “I’ve finally gone insane,” only to feel Kim’s hand on your back, saying “I can see it.” It is such a simple interaction, yet it holds so much warmth. You as the player almost feel Kim’s hand on your body, reassuring you. Because through all the interactions you’ve had, all the doubts and depraved self-loathing, you want things to work out for Harry. You want him to get his shit together and come out better in the end, because the writing has made you care for him. Even through all the freedom you have when guiding his words, you think of him as his own character.
There are so many moments in this game that make small moments feel big. The rich man in the container at the docks who is so much richer than you that you are unable to see his true form; the spider-man swinging about the rafters of a run-down church, having found a new lease on life after giving up on drugs. Everywhere you go there’s a story. They never seek you out, never announce themselves with a big bang. They’re just there, hanging around, waiting to be discovered. And they’re all a product of great characterisation.
Nailing your theme
“What can change the nature of a man?” This question is the central theme of Planescape Torment, one that is always present, made even more palpable by your protagonist being forced to watch the chaos his past lives have wrought from the outside due to his amnesia. It is posed by Ravel, the very creature who first stripped away your mortality. You’ve spent a good chunk of time searching for her by now, and when you finally find her it feels almost anti-climactic. She’s in a realm of her own making. She has forgotten common words, is unsure of how to speak to you. She’s not at all how you expected her to be. In a way she’s as broken as you, spending her whole life as the game puts it “obsessed with solving puzzles that don’t need solving.” And the big question she asks you is the one above. It is what she has been trying to solve for all this time. Perhaps even why she helped you achieve immortality. For its time it was kind of ground-breaking, letting the player themselves answer it. There are several options to choose from, but for me the answer was always regret.
When I look back on my life and see the twisting paths that are only ever visible in retrospect, almost all of the life-changing choices I’ve made boils down to regret. I think it’s the same for many of you reading this. It definitely is for Harry DuBois (or Tequila Sunrise, if you prefer that), the main character of Disco Elysium. You see, Harry also suffers from amnesia. He was so sad and drank so much that he simply forgot all about his past life, and is now forced to piece it back together. This is a rare opportunity for Harry since it gives him the chance to redefine himself. He might have been kind of a sorry excuse for a human being before, but it is what he does from now on that will shape him. He is apparently a cop, even though he remembers nothing of it. He’s made a fool of himself in the motel he’s staying at, and the whole district of Martinaise is full of traces of his misdeeds.Yet he has no choice but to go on. It is up to you to decide why. And much like Ravel Puzzlewell he spends much of his time solving puzzles that don’t need solving.
One of the central themes of this game that touches on the theme in Planescape Torment is Harry’s drinking. This is a major part of his plot arc, but the game never tells you this. When you start the game Harry is a raging alcoholic, and Martinaise is full of things that can be consumed for some ease of mind. If you approach it with the usual gamer attitude you will probably see the quest in your log telling you to find something to drink and do it. It feels especially logical since partaking in drink and drugs also raise your learning caps. While Kim will tell you off for being a drunk and other characters will mostly react negatively to it, nothing major in the game really changes if you spend most of it walking around with a bottle in hand. Not until you reach the very end scene, where your colleagues from Precinct 41 shows up and has to decide if you should be allowed to continue working as a cop. I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol during the entire game, and it payed off. It felt like this was the good ending. Like Harry as a character had actually changed due to this choice. If you’ll allow me to dip into narrative theory you could say he had overcome his weaknesses and fulfilled his needs, as a good character should.
For me the main theme of Disco Elysium was regret. Regret for a love lost, regret for acting in a way that hurt others. But it was also about restitution. All that pain and searching pays off in the end. You know that Harry has a chance now, of putting things right. Of letting go of things that should have been let go of since a long time back.
Choice and consequence made human
Many games have let the player mess around with choice and consequence. Obsidian are notably good at this, with their morally gray factions and the way you always fear how your choices will pan out. But it never feels human. It is mostly exposition. Factions and their values against other factions and their values, and since they have to let the player know what those values are, they dump exposition at them in huge chunks. I always found it a slog to go through.
What Disco Elysium and to a lesser extent Planescape Torment does so well is that they take a more existential approach. In Planescape, you awake on a slab in the mortuary only to realise you are immortal, with a catch. Whenever you die you forget all about your past life. It’s more like reincarnation than immortality, except the body carries on. You are horribly scarred. During the game you are confronted with people who knew your past selves, and you have to handle the ramifications of things you didn’t actually do, not the you that you are now.
This culminates in a beautiful scene at the end of the game where you meet your past incarnations. During conversation with one of them, you realise that he is in fact the very first of you. The one that struck the deal that led to all this suffering. He asks you if it was worth it, this brief life you have lived. You can tell he wants you to say yes, and you can. You can also say that it brought mostly suffering on yourself and others. This scene is heart-breaking, more so for the fact that you’ve actually seen the misery your past incarnations wrought upon people. Dak’kon is a deeply devoted follower of a religion a past version of you created, essentially living a lie. Ignus is a sorcerer so obsessed with harnessing the flame that he has become the flame. Subjected to numerous torments from his former master, you eventually come to learn that this master was one of your previous incarnations. You are responsible for the state Ignus finds himself in.
But most heart-breaking of all is the tale of Deinoarra. A girl infatuated with a past incarnation of you, who tricked and deceived her into thinking he loved her back, only to be able to use her assets in his quest. All this you can experience in a sensory stone, a bottled memory if you will. It is a lengthy read, but well worth it. And when you realise this is the ghostly woman you met at the beginning of the game, who sourly calls you “her love”, everything falls into place. Planescape Torment is as much a story about how love can destroy someone as it is about finding your mortality.
My point is that Planescape Torment is full of these things that are in fact optional, whether it be a branch in a conversation that you can skip, or a missable event in some corner of the map you might never go to. The game is full of these expertly written interactions that aren’t essential to complete the story, but are essential to understand it fully. This is what is so important in creating a believable world. The sense that there are more things going on than you can comprehend.
Disco Elysium is very similar to this, but in a wholly different setting. What does it mean to exist? Why is it important to have an identity? While Planescape makes a big deal of how names carry power, and you go through 90% of the game not knowing yours, Disco Elysium’s most important take-away is acceptance. You are a complete failure of a man, yet through perseverance and tenacity people around you can grow to accept you. You can even accept yourself. This has been ingrained into you as a player throughout the game in such a way that when the Insulindian Phasmid emerges from the reeds and is completely non-judgmental, it feels big. This thing that had no prior place in the story has such a big impact because you realise it is not about the phasmid itself, but about being accepted. This is why when my Harry ends their conversation with the words “Of all the creatures I’ve met, you are the kindest,” I am close to breaking down. It feels like the climax of everything that happened up to that point. It hits deeper than any other gaming story I’ve ever played because I have felt what Harry felt, seen what he has seen. And now he has some chance at making up for the chaotic life he has lived up until that point.
Much like Planescape Torment, love plays a part in this game too. As you go to sleep, your reptilian brain and your limbic system speak to you. They do so in riddles, with words carefully wrapped, making sure you never really know what’s going on. But they keep mentioning an ex. Someone who used to be there but no longer is. If you find your case-folder and look through it, you might discover a note written by a woman, adressed to you. Your senses warn you against reading it, and if you do Harry apparently dies. It is so sudden, so unexpected, that you almost press alt-F4 to reload. But then you wake up in Kim’s car, with him urging you to drink some water. This is what you have repressed by losing your memory. A breakup so painful that it literally makes you go numb.
Later on you find a broken down church. Pass a conceptualization check here and you conclude that the wall once had a mural of the deity Dolores Dei. Dolores appears, and she speaks to you of the world, all the while emanating a strange sadness. This is one of the few truly supernatural experiences in the game. It is a beautiful conversation but it doesn’t give you any quests. It’s seemingly just a completely missable interaction that feels like something other games would have as a major plot point. Some time later (or perhaps it was in this conversation? My memory fails me), you learn that Dolores Dei appreciates figurines. You find one of these later in the game but you can’t give it to her. It just sits there in your inventory, making you wonder if you missed something.
When you finally reach the island, just before the climax of the game happens, you come across a couch. You’re hurt, Kim tells you to rest. If you’re like me you instead decide to explore the island. Resting is something you’ve done all game to make a new day arrive. It doesn’t feel special, this couch. After exploring the island, finding among other things a place by the coast where Harry feels a strange willingness to walk into the water, you go back to the building with the couch, and you think “what the hell, maybe something happens”. So you lie down. When you wake up Kim is gone. You feel like you should head to that place by the coast again.
This is where the most heart-breaking scene in the game takes place. As you arrive at the water you’re prompted to walk in. Harry does so, and he keeps going until he reaches a distorted intersection of streets. There are some buildings, among others a video rental store. At the intersection stands a woman. Dolores Dei. You speak to her and she tells you it could never have been you two. She never felt the same way. You realise the one you spoke to at the church was never a deity, it was your idolised memory of the woman who left you. In your grief you have put that woman on a pedestal high enough to make her a god.
This is not a conversation that will go your way. She is mean-spirited, callous, not the woman you spent the whole game thinking you would reunite with. Try to give her the figurine and she doesn’t want it. A skill check prompts you to kiss her. All your senses warn you this is not a good idea. It will not go your way. But you try anyway, because the game gives you a percentage chance at success and you want to believe it to be true. But the sad truth is that no matter if you succeed or fail the check, she doesn’t kiss you back. There was never any hope. As she leaves you you’re left with the sinking feeling that this is why Harry lost his memory. Why would she ever want you? You leave the ruin of that failed relationship with a stone in your chest.
Thirty minutes later, when you’ve almost finished speaking with the Insulindian Phasmid, it stops you just as you’re about to turn around. There is one more thing, it says. “That woman, turn from the ruin, turn and go forward.” And no matter how much you want to tell the phasmid that you will, the most you can muster is “I will try.”
This is where I feel these two games stand out compared to most other releases. The writing is not merely a means to an end, a web of events to tie a story together. It is trying to tell us something, and at least for me it succeeds. The characters don’t feel like plot devices, but real people. The plight of your main character is relatable and adapts to the choices you as a player makes. Words, not set-pieces, make this possible.
Creating a believable and dynamic world
Somewhere along the mid- to late game of Planescape Torment you come across a golem named Coaxmetal. He tells you that he is a product of entropy, his consciousness a direct reaction stemming from this concept. If you keep talking to him and ask him what happened to his former masters, he will tell you: “Entropy has unmade them.” It can be argued that he is talking both about entropy as it it used in physics, stating that when left alone a system will inevitably fall into disorder; and the sociological defintion of the word that talks about entropy as the natural decay of laws, structures and organisation in a society. This is something that is broadly applicable to the chaotic existence of the planes in this game, but also to Disco Elysium, whose very world is a testament to how entropy as a concept is an inevitability.
Revachol is a city reminiscent of the former communist states of old. Not surprising, since the writer of the game is from Estonia. It has suffered through wars and violent uprisings, all in the name of ideology. The game never takes a stance on this. You’re given many opportunities to talk about the different ideologies, even to “opt in” to some of them, but it is always with a tinge of fatalism. As if there is no truly right way of doing it. As if no matter how good your intentions, entropy will find a way to unmake what you strived for and turn it into something flawed.
As you make your way through the streets of Revaschol, there is a deep sadness permeating from them. This is a city you can’t save. It is a ruin of conflicting wills. The police is no longer state controlled but a citizens militia, with different precincts policing different areas of the city. The city itself is divided to the point of being more like a series of states than a united nation. It seems the so called revolution didn’t solve anything. Walking from the right side of the Martinaise district (where the game takes place) to the left has you travel from the union-controlled industry to small street peddlers to the forgotten backwater, where the poor live in shacks. It is the contrast of Evrart Claire’s unionised protest to a forgotten land where the poor dwells. At a shack, an old woman invites you to stay with her for free. If you have a high enough empathy, you can learn that this is because she is lonely. Walk a little to the west and you find a couple of drunks you apparently “partied” with, that insists on calling you Tequila Sunrise. It is a name you can adapt as your own, if you want to.
Martinaise is both forgotten and the center of attention. There’s been a murder and there’s a strike going on, but just a few hundred meters to the west a wild land emerges, of decrepit abandoned buildings and a coastline of forgotten things. This contrast is what makes the game world so believable. The parts feel like parts of a whole, pieces that fit together but can never mix, because if they do the world in front of you would break apart. The poor needs to be poor because if they’re not the corrupt industry would take over and kill the soul of the land. The corrupt industry needs to be corrupt because if it’s not Martinaise would die out and be nothing but reeds and the slow ripple of waves on a dying coastline.
Making side activites matter
There is a minor side quest in Disco Elysium that is the perfect example of how the small things matter. You find a woman outside the bookstore, just standing around browsing the wares. If you talk to her you can ask her if something is missing. She will say no, because there isn’t. You can keep hounding her, telling her you have a hunch her husband is missing, but she will deny it, and it is kind of implied that Harry is just being crazy.
Later on, while making your way through the backwater, you find a dead man on a walkway by the water. You examine him and learn that his foot went through a rotten floorboard and he died by hitting his head on the nearby bench. He was drunk. Kim asks you if you want to take the case, and you can say yes or no, but because you are a gamer you know to take on every side quest, right?
You eventually learn that the dead man has a wife living in the apartments by the motel. You have to tell her that her husband died. By this point you’ve gotten used to having Kim take over when things are too hard for you. He is after all the responsible one, the one who has a grip on things. But when you get there he asks you to deliver the news. You realise he doesn’t want to do it. It is hard for him, and you can release him from this burden, taking it on yourself.
Turns out the wife is the same woman you hounded before. Your gut feeling was correct. There’s nothing to explain this, it merges with the dreamlike state of the game, of your senses leading you to conclusions you as the player have to decide if you believe in. The woman is visibly distressed by the news of her dead husband. He was there just a few days ago, she tells you. She asks how long he’d been out there, dead and alone. And this is where the game surprised me. An empathy check tells you that telling her the truth would crush her. Knowing her husband was out there for days, getting picked at by birds, accompanied only by the sound of the waves. You can of course tell her the truth. It is arguably the right thing to do. But I didn’t. I told her it hadn’t been long. She is comforted by this.
And that is the end of it. Your choice has no deeper consequences in the game world, but you carry that decision with you anyway, unsure of if you made the right call. Kim thinks you did, but even he is flawed. The game won’t tell you what is right and what is wrong, leaving you to figure it out for yourself.
There are more quests like this. The teenagers wanting to set up a club in the semi-abandoned church, the mystery of the doomed commercial area where you never really find out if there is something supernatural going on or if it’s just a way of making sense of the district dying. They all have a story that you want to find out more about. Nothing feels superfluous.
How quality writing changes how we experience games
There are many games with good characters and believable writing, just as there are many Hollywood movies with good characters and believable writing. But to make something stand out, it needs to feel like something more than simply a way to pass the time. The characters need to feel alive, not just like exposition machines or angry bandit number 258. Many games fall short on this, especially when it comes to side content.
When I played throught The Last of Us 2, I was consistently impressed by the locations, the dialogue, and the characters, yet it never felt like the world was bigger than me. It’s more or less a corridor of narrative, an adventure starting and ending with the events you take place in. The plot has tension and drive, but it never feels like anything goes on beyond the border of the map you inhabit. I want to be clear here, I’m not an advocate of non-linear games, in fact I tend to favor the linear ones. Yet every time I finish a big AAA game I can’t help but feel like it doesn’t stick around long. I move on to other games, soon forgetting characters I really liked while playing through it. I I call this the trap of Hollywoodisation.
If we go in the polar opposite direction we end up at the Assassin’s Creed games. Here the world is big and open with a lot going on, but it falls prey to the age old open world trap of making your character too powerful. Before you know it you’re slaughtering whole bases of soldiers. After the first few you don’t really care. The discrepancy between world and character power is too apparent. You can build an amazing world, but if your character feels like a demi-god the stakes don’t matter. You never fear for him or her. The trap of the snow globe. All fluff and no depth.
While the two issues mentioned above are important, the main problem with narratives today is this: The stakes are too high. I’m getting into very subjective territory here but I see this again and again and I firmly believe it detracts from the experience. When the end goal is saving the world or taking down the big bad antagonist, stories tend to lose power. The small things don’t matter, like the fate of a lonely woman wasting away in a tiny apartment, or whether a lost, depressed man will finally find something to make life worth living.
To me, this is where Disco Elysium shines. Your character feels weak. When you run straight into the only gun battle in the game you’re afraid for him and for everyone around him, because you’re not sure everyone will make it out alive, not even yourself. You realise your ability to defuse the situation is the only thing standing between a peaceful resolution and utter chaos. And you’re not at all sure you got what it takes. When you interact with the inhabitants of Revachol, you don’t do it with the end goal of saving the city, or of saving someone’s life. You do it because the characters are just so damn interesting and well-written. You constantly feel small, like solving this murder is too big for you. And when you finally meet the deserter sitting alone on that island and listen to his story, you feel like the antagonist in this game is not that unlike you. That could have been you, if things took a wrong turn.
There is power in the small and seemingly inconsequential, like Harry DuBois learning how to live with himself, or the Nameless One finding his mortality. The power of character-driven stories should not be forgotten. A good character is worth ten times more than an exciting twist. But if you have both, all the better.
A spark of hope
Disco Elysium has been a success, all in all. It may not have racked in the amount of money AAA-games do, but enough to warrant publishers taking notice. This is very important for those of us that appreciate these types of games. It shows that the art of amazing writing has a place in the video game world. So thank you for buying the game, proving that writing matters, and thank you for reading through this rather long essay. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait twenty years for the next one.